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Inside Encores! Off-Center's bittersweet new season
Quick: What do Encores! Off-Center's three summer revivals Songs for a New World, Gone Missing and Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope have in common? If you answered that they're all bookless musicals, you're right. Each is a revue, a song cycle around an idea, whether that's new beginnings, types of loss or the challenges of being black in America.
There's another, sadder connection: Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World and Micki Grant's Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope were originally shortlisted for the series by Off-Center's former artistic director Michael Friedman, whose unexpected death last September from AIDS shocked the theatre world. Since he was a lauded musical maker in his own right, Off-Center's interim leaders, Tony-winning Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori and director Anne Kauffman, chose Friedman's Gone Missing as this season's third production.
Tesori was the founding artistic director of Off-Center, which spotlights lesser-known Off-Broadway musicals via limited-run, stripped-down stagings, much like its sister series Encores! does for forgotten Broadway shows. Friedman took over last season, but fell ill. Tesori agreed to sub while he recovered. "When Michael was in the hospital, I said, 'Let's put some tent poles in place so Michael won't have to do much heavy lifting when he comes back,'" she recalls. "And the next week he died." Suddenly, Tesori found herself back in the saddle while grieving for a friend. "There's a reason why I left," she confides. "It's hard to run the program and write. So that's when I found Anne. She and Michael had worked together. Pretty soon, we had a season."
Kauffman agrees. "I kind of think we co-programed it with Michael," she says. "All these pieces were in play on his list.
Those who know Kauffman from her incisive, moody mountings of plays like Adam Bock's A Life and Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime might not expect musicals to be in her wheelhouse, but they pepper her résumé. She collaborated with Friedman on shows developed by docu-theatre troupe The Civilians that used a cappella singing. And last summer, Friedman hired her to helm a splendidly creepy, painfully relevant revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins for Off-Center.
But Kauffman's musical history goes even further back. "I really wanted to be a musical theatre star, but I couldn't sing or dance or act," she admits with a chuckle. "I went to go see My Fair Lady the other night at Lincoln Center. I was Eliza Doolittle in the eighth grade. I had a lot of trouble because I knew how that role should have been done."
The beauty of Off-Center is that there is no one way these shows should be done. Each musical bends form and content, trying, across the decades, to push the form forward. Originally produced in 1971, Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope (running July 25 to 28) feels like a civil rights-era response to Hair, a mixtape of R&B, gospel, jazz and show tunes that digs deep into the racist underpinnings of American culture. As director, Tony-winning tap genius Savion Glover will put his unique stamp on that project.
Almost a quarter-century later in 1995, Tony-winning Parade songwriter Brown made a flashy debut with Songs for a New World (running June 27 to 30). Tony-nominated director Kate Whoriskey oversees this bravura suite of solo and group numbers, in which characters come to grips with the extremes of life: suicide, pregnancy, poverty, war and love.
Ken Rus Schmoll directs Gone Missing (running July 11 to 12), a cult favorite for fans of downtown work. In 2003, Friedman, in association The Civilians and director Steven Cosson, examined the concept of loss from every possible angle in this brainy, melancholy collage.
"I didn't know Gone Missing at all," admits Tesori, but she's amazed by its mix of humor and heartbreak. Of course, the sorrow isn't just from the pathos in the material. "People are still in pain and grief over Michael," Tesori says. "We've had to tread very carefully. Even with the poster design: We had to go back and forth. It's a man's life, not just a show."
Kauffman says she's barely keeping it together at fundraisers in Friedman's name, but she's happy to see his work celebrated in such grand style. "I'm thrilled to have Gone Missing on this humongous stage," she says. "Michael's work slides between tiny details and the epic picture. He talks about memory and nostalgia and the life cycle of eels, you know? And then we zoom way out and look at the creation of the world and this epic definition of loss."
While City Center is still looking for a new permanent artistic director for Encores! Off-Center, Tesori is happy the series will continue. "The larger musicals do their own heavy lifting on Broadway," she says. "But other musicals -- not just ones from downtown -- which are guided by the voice of the artist, who knows if they can sustain a commercial run? But they should be seen. They deserve their place in the canon."
Top image: Shoshana Bean and Mykal Kilgore in Songs for a New World. Photo by Joan Marcus.